Like most ocean lovers, Gus Gates spends a lot of time strolling along the beaches of Oregon's iconic coastline. And like others who spend time around the water, Gates has found himself using less of his time to contemplate the wonders of the sea and more to clean up litter. More often than not, that litter washes ashore in the form of a wrinkled and clammy single-use bag, those ubiquitous satchels that not so long ago replaced paper bags in the checkout lanes and are seemingly handed out by the truckload at most grocery stores.
Gates, who grew up on the coast in Florence, has spent the last few months taking a different approach to fighting the plastic bag menace. As the Oregon policy coordinator for the Surfrider Foundation, an international, 50,000-member coastal conservation group, Gates has been working in Salem to get legislators to sign off on a proposal that would ban single-use plastic bags from grocery store checkout lanes. Instead of free plastic bags, grocery stores would be allowed to charge customers a five-cent fee for a paper bag. The goal, Gates said, is to get customers to bring in their reusable bags, as many customers have already started doing thanks to education about the problems associated with plastics and a push by grocers to wean customers off the disposable bags.
Last week, the bill to ban single-use bags narrowly passed the Oregon Senate Environment Committee, just a few hours ahead of a deadline that would have killed the bill under Senate rules. Gates said he thinks the bill has a good chance of passing when it comes up for a full floor vote in the next week or so.
"The votes look like they're there, but it's going to be close," said Gates, who has been monitoring the bill's progress.
However, the bill has faced strong opposition from the deep-pocketed plastics industry, which according to The Oregonian offered a deal to the bill's chief sponsor, Sen. Mark Hass, D-Beaverton, earlier this year. According to a story that published in March, one of the nation's largest plastic bag makers, Hilex-Poly, offered to build a lucrative recycling center in Hass' west Portland district if he scuttled the bill and swapped it with a bill to prohibit cities and counties from enacting their own plastic bag bans, as places like Portland and Beaverton have contemplated.
Through a statement from its spokeswoman, Anna Richter Taylor, a former aide to Gov. Ted Kulongoski, Hilex-Poly declined that it was trying to buy off Hass. Either way, it's spending handsomely to preserve the status quo. Gates estimated that the industry, which has also embarked on a wide-ranging public relations campaign, has spent more than a $1 million trying to get the plastic ban bill killed.
"If they spent as much money as they do on lobbying to remove the burden on Oregon-based businesses, maybe we could start a conversation," Gates said, referring to the cost of removing plastics from recycling equipment, municipal storm drains and water treatment facilities.
Whatever happens in the Senate, it's likely that the bill faces an uphill battle in the sharply divided and deeply partisan House. So far, the bill has just one Republican supporter in the Senate, underscoring the role of party politics in the fate of the legislation.
Rep. Gene Whisnant, R-Sunriver, said he hasn't studied the bill, but expects that he will oppose it, should it reach the House for a vote. Whisnant, whose own family avoids plastic bags, said he couldn't justify an additional five-cent bag fee for his constituents in this economy. Instead, he said he favors education and programs that encourage people to adopt reusable bags.
"I think people want to do the right thing... We have a great nation of people and a history of doing that. You look back to World War II and look at the sacrifices," he said.
Asked if he was concerned about the role of the plastics industry lobby in shaping the debate, Whisnant said he hadn't been contacted by anyone representing the industry. However, he said it's not unusual for lobbyists to be heavily involved in the process.
"I tell people that I've got enough experience to know that the state of Oregon doesn't have enough money to give me the staff I need to do my job, so I rely on lobbyists to give me their side of the story... They're like my staff," Whisnant said.
Other Local Legislative News
A number of bills related directly to Central Oregon were bouncing around legislative committees over the last week. Here's a brief rundown of some of the legislation pertinent to our region:
SB 792 (Fast Track of Industrial Lands)
This bill backed by Central Oregon's legislative contingent would allow municipalities to sidestep land use planning laws to create shovel-ready economic development lands outside their existing urban growth boundaries. The bill faced strong opposition from conservation groups including 1,000 Friends of Oregon and has been referred to the Senate Rules Committee. 1,000 Friends' Communications Director Eric Stachon said he believes the bill is unlikely to advance at this point.
HB 3623 (Deschutes Groundwater Mitigation)
Rep. Whisnant identified the renewal of this groundwater-pumping program as his top priority for the session. The new language extends the program, which was set to sunset in 2014, by another 15 years. Opponents, including Central Oregon LandWatch, said they were still concerned that existing deficiencies with the program, several which were identified in a 2009 report by the state Water Resources Department, have not been addressed. One of the program's chief critics, the nonprofit conservation group WaterWatch, has agreed not to oppose the bill. However, WaterWatch's attorney Kimberley Priestley said the group would not be testifying in support of the bill at its next stop in the House Ways and Means Committee.
HR 3347/3467 (Pine Forest/Sunriver Resort Bill)
Rep. Whisnant reportedly got an earful recently from south county residents about this bill that would allow the owners of the Sunriver Resort to build an additional 1,000 homes on a nearby parcel of land while bypassing the state's resort planning rules. The developers would provide up to $3 million to expand the Sunriver treatment system to address existing south country groundwater quality issues that have been linked to septic systems. Opponents, including Bend-based Central Oregon LandWatch say the proposal simply allows a single developer to buy its way out of the land use system and sets a dangerous precedent. Moreover, said LandWatch's lobbyist Jonathan Manton, the bill doesn't provide enough money to put a dent in south county groundwater issue.
"Three million is not even close to what we need to solve the problem. The problem is real, but this is not the solution," Manton said.
Whisnant framed the issue as a public-private partnership on par with the deal that county commissioners struck with Pahlisch homes in La Pine several years ago to consolidate development on lots with sewer service.
The bill is currently in limbo in the House Rules Committee while Whisnant waits to hear back from the Governor's staff on whether Kitzhaber will use his veto power on the bill. If not, Whisnant said he is prepared to renew his effort to get it passed.